Tuesday, November 17, 2015

do not panic

OK, so I think most people reading this probably take a pretty even-keeled approach to UVA sports.  Either because I've trained you to do so or because you decide to read this stuff because my mindset is similar to yours.  (Most assuredly it's the latter, but I like to pretend it's the former and that when I ring a bell, someone somewhere gets glassy-eyed and says "We Can't Have Nice Things," eliciting a dirty look from their spouse.)

So you already know not to panic just because UVA lost to George Washington, but I'm gonna take it a step further and say, don't even fret a little.  Feel free to be annoyed, of course, and to grumble that it puts a ding in the ol' tournament resume, but here's what you shouldn't do under any circumstances: listen to anyone who takes two games of evidence and declares "we don't have this" or " X can't do that" or "Y needs to Z or else" or just about anything that draws a conclusion about how this team will look in March based on two games in November.  One of which was against a horrendous team missing two of its better players.

For one thing, even if there's nobody on the team with a shooter's rep, the vast majority of basketball games will not start off at a 2-for-14 clip from three point range.  Making three of those 12 misses would be highly mediocre and have made the game very different.  Second, the number of times GW got a bucket from a ball bouncing on the rim - sometimes multiple bounces - was obscene.  I can't count the number of flailing prayer-drives the GW players tried that resulted, somehow, in a bucket, and sometimes in a foul too.

Yeah, there's a few things to fix.  Tony won't be so phlegmatic about the result, and he'll have some ideas for his team in practice.  The positioning was a little sloppy, probably a little too far from the rim.  The offense took maybe a couple too many contested early jump shots.  (I'd guess the acceptable number of those is zero.)  It's possible, even likely, the 30-second shot clock is in the players' heads a little.

Tony's kind of a good coach, though, so everyone obviously should believe he can fix things.  And it's that last point that leads me to the main deal here.  Just about every year, I point out that a basketball team is a chemistry experiment, one which has to be rebalanced and retried every season.  You can't ever say exactly what you'll get from your players, not even your seniors and juniors.  Mike Tobey has been a work in progress his whole UVA career, because that's the nature of a skilled big man.  Anthony Gill has to learn to play defense without having a spring-loaded 6'9" spiderman next to him on the block.  Perrantes and Brogdon have to relearn how the offense is going to work without a lion-maned maniac on the floor.  Lots of other guys have to learn what their new, expanded role is.  And this year there's rule changes up the gazoo, and the team has to learn what they can and can't do and how to deal with a faster-paced clock.

This is a veteran team, of course - one with a very high basketball IQ and coached by a damn genius.  A lot of instinct has to be relearned, but that relearning process is partly automatic.  They'll get it without trying to get it.  They're about to embark on a full weekend of basketball - they'll be playing Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.  That's how you get into the comfort zone again.  They did look a little uncomfortable and out of sorts, and I'm sure the incredibly brah-riffic crowd at GW likes to think they had something to do with that, but these players have been to ACC road games before, so, nah.  I think it's much more to do with the new rules environment, and the fact that the chemistry experiment is still percolating.


-- I wish I could get mad at the refereeing, but the simple truth is it's impossible to know right now whether they were following the directives from the NCAA to the letter or whether they were just being ticky-tack.  There weren't a lot of replays of the fouls they called.  I do know that Jim Calhoun expressed his pleasure that they were "letting the teams play" and that was the clear winner for dumb announcer statement of the night.

-- I liked the look of Jack Salt.  If he continues to play that way he should be a regular.  He had a blocked shot and it made an audible slap-thud even in the noisy court.  By the way, students, if one of you doesn't bring a huge cardboard cutout of a salt shaker this year to a game, you're wasting your whole educational experience.

-- I think Malcolm Brogdon started to take seriously the idea of being the takeover guy.  He forced a few drives, and it was honest-to-God working.  But then he sort of stopped.  I still want to see a little more selfishness at the end of tight games, especially when the refs are calling fouls for breathing.

-- Mike Tobey would've been more successful on the block if he didn't start his moves with the idea of a fadeaway hook already in his head.  But I love that he dropped in a three-pointer.  Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

-- The hair this year is something else.  Gill has Jheri curls now.  Darius Thompson has a skunk stripe.  Mike Tobey is trying to look like a trucker instead of a huge 15-year-old, but all he's managed to do is look like a huge 15-year-old trucker.

Friday, November 13, 2015

basketball season preview, part 4: nonconference

No football preview this week.  OK, maybe a little one: Gonna lose.  Instead, on the eve of Basketball Season, which is a long, long time coming, it's time for the yearly look at UVA's OOC slate - which this year is undoubtedly the toughest in a long time.

Morgan State
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

'14-'15 record: 7-24 (5-11)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .1097 (337th)

Conference projections (out of 13):

Media poll: 7th
KenPom: 8th
SI: 7th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 93.1 / 105.3 / .1964 / 311th
SI (Hanner): 95.2 / 108.9 / .2013 / 321st

Chances of winning: 100%

As if Morgan State weren't a bad enough basketball team, they'll be without two of their top players (Cedric Blossom and Rasean Simpson) on Friday, lost to an academic penalty for the first few games of the season.  Blossom was Morgan State's only legit offensive threat, other than maybe shooting specialist Andrew Hampton.

No other returning player for the Bears had an O-rating higher than 91.2 last year, and that's really stretching the limits.  Starting point guard Donte Pretlow is a special kind of lousy, with an astonishing O-rating of 70.9 thanks to his comically poor shooting.  Nobody on this team can shoot free throws let alone contested shots, and they leaned so hard on Blossom last year that nobody else is used to the leadership role on offense.  This is a foregone conclusion.

George Washington
Atlantic-10 Conference

'14-'15 record: 22-13 (10-8)
'14-'15 postseason: NIT second round (5 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .7072 (74th)

Conference projections (out of 14):

Media poll: 4th
KenPom: 4th
SI: 6th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.2 / 94.6 / .7512 / 57th
SI (Hanner): 108.2 / 98.1 / .7319 / 70th

Chances of winning: High

A much more interesting test awaits, as UVA goes on the road for the second half of a home-and-home.  In last year's edition, GW led at halftime before the Hoos clamped down and allowed just 16 points in the second half.

GW lost the top scorer from that game; Kethan Savage has transferred to Butler.  But they had only one senior last year and return a lot of dangerous three-point shooters - point guards Joe McDonald and Paul Jorgensen; stretchy mismatch forward Yuta Watanabe; instant heat Nick Griffin, whose job it is to come off the bench and hit threes.  Small forward Patricio Garino isn't a great three-point shooter, but is very, very efficient inside the arc.

The Colonial's weakness is inside, where only Kevin Larsen is a dangerous player.  Other than him, this is a small team, as the 6'8" Watanabe is too skinny at 197 pounds to bang around inside, and freshman Collin Goss is just as much a beanpole.  UVA will have to contend with an array of scorers, but should be able to use a large frontcourt advantage to good effect.

Missouri Valley Conference

'14-'15 record: 9-24 (3-15)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .2787 (270th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 10th
SI: 10th
KenPom: 10th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 92.7 / 99.7 / .3026 / 275th
SI (Hanner): 92.6 / 101.6 / .2787 / 292nd

Chances of winning: Near-lock

Bradley fired coach Geno Ward after last season, and the result was the usual amount of turnover times ten.  The Braves had one senior and a whole bunch of juniors last year, and now they have four players on the roster who aren't freshmen - one of whom is a transfer and has to sit.

That leaves them with their backup shooting guard, two end-of-the-rotation forwards, and ten freshmen who've never set foot on a college court before.  Yikes.  This was a horrendous offensive team last year (and the holdovers were among the worst) and while a new coach and basically new team could change that..... there really isn't much hope of that kind of makeup being able to defeat a veteran Tony Bennett-coached team.

This game is UVA's opener in the Charleston Classic; after a very likely ruthless dispatching of Bradley, UVA would play the winner of Seton Hall and Long Beach State.  Probably Seton Hall, as Long Beach has a lot of minutes to replace from last year and Seton Hall has some dangerous players, like former UVA recruit Sterling Gibbs as well as quality forwards in Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez.  The favorite to come out of the other end of the bracket and hopefully be UVA's opponent in the championship game is Oklahoma State.  UVA is the marquee team in the tournament, though, and the heavy favorite to win it.

Patriot League

'14-'15 record: 16-14 (10-8)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .4201 (196th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 1st
KenPom: 1st
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 101.8 / 99.0 / .5801 / 119th
SI (Hanner): 100.6 / 100.0 / .5153 / 166th

Chances of winning: Really, really high

If you're gonna play low-major teams, and you pretty much will have a few on your schedule, this is the way to go - pick one that's the favorite in their conference so they go out and boost your RPI once you've finished beating them.  Like Lehigh.  They've got the build of a giant-killer, with some solid shooters like the teensy Kahron Ross, who had an impressive debut season last year.  But the offense goes first and foremost through center Tim Kempton, the reigning Patriot League POY.  It's hard for low-major teams to find good, skilled centers.  Still, he gives up 35 pounds to Mike Tobey.

Ohio State
Big Ten Conference

'14-'15 record: 24-11 (10-7)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA 2nd round (10 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .8640 (21st)

Conference projections (out of 14):

Media poll: 8th*
KenPom: 8th
SI: 6th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 106.4 / 93.9 / .8077 / 42nd
SI (Hanner): 112.6 / 95.4 / .8454 / 28th

Chances of winning: Decent

*The Big Ten likes to make sure nobody gets their participation ribbons all in a bunch by getting voted last, and refuses to release anything past a top 3.  In past years the Columbus Dispatch has orchestrated an unofficial poll, which I couldn't find this year and so threw up my hands in failure and just used the Dispatch's own predicted order of finish.

UVA's assigned opponent in the ACC-B1G Challenge is a bit of an unknown quantity.  OSU lost four starters to graduation and the draft, but hopes to soften the blow with a top recruiting class.  That class is led by Jaquan Lyle, trying to fill the scoring shoes of one-and-done guard D'Angelo Russell.  Top holdovers include Jae'Sean Tate, who shot .631 inside the arc last year, and Marc Loving, who shot .461 outside it.  Of the main contributors, however, only Loving will be an upperclassman.  This is a talented but inexperienced team.  Probably one that's more athletic than UVA, and the game is on the road in what's likely to be a full building.  We'll be hoping age and guile beats youth and foolishness.

William & Mary
Colonial Athletic Association

'14-'15 record: 20-13 (12-6)
'14-'15 postseason: NIT 1st round (7 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .5688 (130th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 4th
KenPom: 4th
SI: 5th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.3 / 101.4 / .5794 / 121st
SI (Hanner): 108.7 / 108.0 / .5165 / 167th

Chances of winning: Very good, but watch out

Gotta have an instate team somewhere on the OOC schedule, and William & Mary draws the honor this year.  This was an interesting team in the KenPom stats last year, with the 27th-best offense in the country and a defense outside the top 300.  They lose point guard Marcus Thornton, 8th in the country in minutes percentage last year, but return a lot of players who stood out on the stat sheet.

Thornton took a whopping 242 three-point shots last year, amounting to more than seven per game, but the Tribe return their actual best shooter in Daniel Dixon.  Forwards Omar Prewitt and Terry Tarpey can find the bucket with relative ease as well, and Tarpey is also a standout defender and free-throw shooter.  Sean Sheldon is also very, very tough to defend, shooting .641 for the 19th-best two-point percentage in the country.

These guys will definitely be upset-minded, and it's definitely one of the more dangerous games on the schedule....but fortunately, of course, at home.

West Virginia
Big 12 Conference

'14-'15 record: 25-10 (11-7)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA Sweet 16 (5 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .8346 (26th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 6th
KenPom: 5th
SI: 5th

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 107.5 / 93.1 / .8399 / 28th
SI (Hanner): 110.8 / 94.4 / .8378 / 32nd

Chances of winning: Respectable

Sandwiched around finals break is probably the toughest three-game stretch any major team will play outside its own conference.  West Virginia was a tournament team last year and looks headed right back there this year.  They have to replace Juwan Staten - tough to do, but WVU ran pretty deep last year and didn't rely too heavily on anyone, so they're equipped to do so.

The Mountaineers play a decidedly different brand of hoops that should make for a fun contrast with UVA.  They're one of the more up-tempo teams in the country - but not necessarily on offense.  They like to get a lot of steals.  Point guard Jevon Carter is very, very dangerous in this regard.  West Virginia also likes to hack, hack, hack.  This might actually get worse than last year because Staten and fellow departed senior Gary Browne were two of the more restrained player.  There is a stat called FTA/FGA, which simply tracks free throws divided by field goal attempts; WVU's defense was dead last in the country at 55.5% percent.  In other word, opponents took well over one free throw for every two field goals they tried.

But they were also #1 in steals percentage, which is attributable only partly to Carter.  It's a team effort.  They gamble, and it can cost them in giving up easy buckets, but their opponents also turned the ball over 28% of the time last year.   UVA's methodical offense will be tested.

Big East Conference

'14-'15 record: 33-3 (16-2)
'14-'15 postseason: NCAA 2nd round (1 seed)
'14-'15 KenPom: .9504 (6th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 1st
KenPom: 1st
SI: 1st

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 112.3 / 90.5 / .9233 / 5th
SI (Hanner): 116.9 / 94.6 / .8975 / 8th

Chances of winning: 50/50 at best

The Big East is anything but a chump league, and Villanova ran away with it last year.  The Wildcats - before flaming out in the second round - entered the NCAA tournament as Big East champs with a 32-2 record.

The bad news for them is that their frontcourt will feel the loss of JayVaughn Pinkston, as it leaves them with really only two big men in Daniel Ochefu and Kris Jenkins.  These are some pretty darn good players, though.  But it's Nova's incredibly deep backcourt is what gives everyone the idea they might be pretty good.

Even losing Dylan Ennis to transfer, Nova probably won't miss a beat.  Ryan Arcidiacono is back, as are Josh Hart and promising sophomore Phil Booth, both of whom were top-notch shooters last year.  Nova also adds five-star recruit Jalen Brunson to the backcourt.  This is a team with few, if any, question marks, and as difficult a test as you could ask for coming out of the final exam break.

Pacific-12 Conference

'14-'15 record: 18-15 (7-11)
'14-'15 postseason: none
'14-'15 KenPom: .6047 (113th)

Conference projections (out of 12):

Media poll: 2nd
KenPom: 6th
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 106.1 / 94.8 / .7846 / 47th
SI (Hanner): 113.7 / 94.3 / .8719 / 13th

Chances of winning: Pretty decent

Cal is a trendy pick as a breakout team this year.  It's not so much their performance last year and all the great players they return, although Jordan Mathews is a heck of a shooter and this was a tremendous defensive rebounding team last year.  It's more about their recruiting class, with two five-stars in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both of whom should jump immediately into the starting lineup.

Thus the wild difference between KenPom and the other projections, because KenPom doesn't try to project the effect of incoming freshmen too heavily.  And the media might get a little overexcited about them.  Pundits are looking at Cal to be a tournament team in 2016, but they definitely have to show it - and the UVA game is their big chance to.

Horizon League

'14-'15 record: 16-17 (11-5)
'14-'15 postseason: CIT 1st round
'14-'15 KenPom: .4848 (164th)

Conference projections (out of 10):

Media poll: 2nd
KenPom: 4th
SI: 2nd

National ratings (out of 351):

KenPom: 104.3 / 104.2 / .5032 / 160th
SI (Hanner): 111.3 / 108.4 / .5672 / 139th

Chances of winning: Very high

Oakland is confidently predicted to be one of the Horizon's better teams this year, but that seems like going out on a limb a bit.  Few teams relied so heavily on so few players last year.  Oakland had three different players getting more than 85% of available minutes, two of which are gone.  They do return point guard Kahlil Felder, which is good because they literally don't let anyone else run the point.  Felder was the nation's minutes leader, playing 95.7% of available minutes.  During 12 of Oakland's games he literally never got to sit the bench, and that includes one OT game and one double OT game.  It doesn't include three other OT games where he played over 40 minutes.

He's also a hell of an assist man with an ARate of 39.6%, so there's a good reason Greg Kampe doesn't turn the keys over to anyone else.  Felder has a few good players to find with the ball, including SG/SF Max Hooper and promising rising sophomores Jalen Hayes and Nick Daniels.  Oakland's offense is respectable.  Their defense, however, stinks in all regards, and UVA shouldn't have much trouble scoring in their final reprieve between the three games of doom and the ACC schedule.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

basketball season preview, part 3

Time to round out the players portion of the season preview.  Tomorrow, we move into the very interesting nonconference schedule, and then finally, next week, the ACC itself.  48 hours, man.  48 hours.

#32 - London Perrantes - Jr. PG

Now entering his third year as the unquestioned starter at point guard, Perrantes's sophomore year efficiency stats are a bit interesting.  Compare:


3pt%: .316
2pt%: .394
FT%: .778
ARate: 26.5
TORate: 20.3

Olivier Hanlan:

3pt%: .353
2pt%: .513
FT%: .759
ARate: 29.1
TORate: 15.0

Hanlan was Boston College's do-it-all star, the league's top point guard last year and a draft pick of the Utah Jazz after his junior year.  There's no doubt who was the better player.  But Perrantes finished with an O-rating of 105.0; Hanlan, 107.4.  Very little difference.

It goes to show two things: one, I don't know anything about what goes into a player's O-rating, though I'm rashly assuming that crazy things like shooting and assists and turnovers are involved.  And two, whatever is in the secret sauce, it rates Perrantes's contributions to the offense pretty highly.

Perrantes has a quality to his play that you can spot even if you don't know you're spotting it.  That's what helped drive a narrative last year that was barely borne out on the stat sheet - that Perrantes asserted himself more, shot more, and picked up the scoring pace to help UVA's offense cope with the loss of Justin Anderson.  He didn't do much of that, actually, not so's you'd notice if all you did was peruse stat sheets.  But it looked like he did, and perception is reality.

So far, the Cali-cool image he projects has been a perfect fit with Tony's methodical approach to offense.  There's an ever-so-slight backwards lean that he sometimes projects in pictures of him making the opening pass of the play setup.  Tony hasn't minded him setting an offensive pace that uses all 35 seconds of the shot clock.  But he will now, because that 31st second is a doozy.  With a tad bit more urgency required on the offensive end, Perrantes will have to adjust.  Move a little quicker.  Maybe save some time on the front end by not always walking the ball up the court like a stroll through the gardens.  The adaptability of Perrantes's game will be challenged this year, and because of the way he can project on the flow of the offense, how he responds will set the tone.

Oh, and it'd be cool if he could improve his shooting a little this year, too.  /every critique of every point guard ever.

#33 - Jack Salt - rFr. C

UVa's New Zealand import will get to take the court this year after a redshirt year spent bulking up and getting used to the pace of American basketball.  Salt added 15 pounds, which is bad news for opponents because every report we've ever seen says he likes cracking skulls.

Also, literally every story I've read about him this year - and there are a lot because a yet-to-be-unwrapped 6'11 Kiwi is a curiosity worth finding out about - mentions that he sets brutal screens.  It seems random.  I don't know what to make of this.  It could be bad news in disguise - if he were playing Bad Boys defense with eight nasty streaks or was a sudden scoring revelation, they'd write about that instead.  But it could be secretly really good news - because part of the reason Will Sherrill became a regular player was his diligence in setting screens.

The safest bet is that Mike Tobey is still a very skilled player, much more experienced, and going to take up 95% of the minutes that call for a true center.  It might seem that Salt and Jarred Reuter are competing for the last of the big-man minutes, but I doubt that because Reuter could easily be on the court at the same time as Tobey; Salt never will.  I think whatever meaningful minutes Salt gets will be in cases where Tobey's in foul trouble and the opponent has trotted out a true center of their own.

I also think that even though he won't be seen much, there's major cult-hero potential here.  If he's as powerfully physical as all the reports say, somebody is either going to get whacked on a perfectly legal screen, or have a shot ruthlessly rejected after Salt roots himself into place in the post, and people will notice.  What I'm hoping for is a future where Salt and Reuter are both patrolling the middle like a couple of roughneck bastards and everyone just hates them.  For this year, it'd be cool if we got a few glimpses of that.

#51 - Darius Thompson - rSo. SG

Here's redshirt number two from last year, another Christmas present to open on November 13.  With Malcolm Brogdon in charge, the chances that Thompson breaks into the starting lineup are zilch.  But like Anthony Gill before him, Thompson is a potential really big deal.

Possibly the most athletic player on the team, Thompson brings a slashing, driving threat that's been a little lacking in Tony's tenure.  Truth is, in his year at Tennessee he was a lousy shooter.  Two or three, it didn't matter, he couldn't hit it if it was a jump shot.  But he also took 71% of his shots at the rim....where he also was a lousy shooter at just .369.  And all that was two years ago.  If those numbers improve, and you ought to believe they will to at least some extent, Thompson has the chance to be a tremendous bench scorer and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Thompson will probably be asked to play the point some, where he'd give opponents a completely different look from Perrantes.  Perrantes is smallish, conservative on defense, and more likely to shoot a jumper than drive.  Thompson will try to use his excellent length and athleticism to jump passing lanes, and look to drive on offense.  Justin Anderson was a tremendously important player because his athleticism scared opponents and forced them to give the rest of the team room to operate.  Thompson can look to partly fill those shoes this year.

#1 - Austin Nichols - Jr. PF
#2 - Justice Bartley - Fr. SG
#24 - Caid Kirven - Sr. PF
#25 - Mamadi Diakite - Fr. SF
#34 - Jeff Jones - Jr. SF

Here's the end of the bench - the walk-ons and redshirts.  UVA will have the most talented non-playing players in the country.  Kirven and Jones are familiar sights at the end of blowouts and do an admirable job of keeping comical scores comical.  Bartley brings a fair amount of talent; he turned down a scholarship at UNLV (that due to his late appearance on the recruiting scene would've had to wait til his sophomore year) in order to study business at UVA.

And of course, the redshirts.  Nichols is coming off a season where he was one of the top ten shot blockers in the country (efficiency stats) and a starter at Memphis - possibly the top prize of the transfer circuit this summer.  Diakite was planning on playing a prep year, but UVA convinced him to essentially prep under Tony Bennett instead.  By some accounts he's the second-best athlete on the team and UVA is redshirting him just because they can.  They'll stay in the shadows for a year and then help cushion the blow of losing four rotation seniors after this season.

Monday, November 9, 2015

basketball season preview, part 2

Moving on with the second third of the UVA roster, including its two biggest stars.

#13 - Anthony Gill - Sr. PF

Nothing in life is guaranteed, so you're allowed to be nervous about whether this coming season can be as brilliant as the last two.  But you're not allowed to be worried about whether a healthy UVA squad will still be a winning team.  Anthony Gill is half the reason.

Gill is a brute force of nature in the post, and unguardable by the average ACC big man.  It takes a hell of an athlete to keep him in check, because he's one of the most powerfully strong basketball players in the country.  It's fortunate that he's a respectable free-throw shooter, because he draws a ton of fouls.  He averaged almost five free throws a game last year, and that's even with opponents finally realizing that hacking him isn't much of a strategy.  Gill is also a tremendous force on the offensive boards, which, combined with Mike Tobey doing the same, is an incredibly potent weapon - it lets Tony Bennett have his cake and eat it too, with stifling transition defense and second-chance points.

Simply put, Gill is the focal point of the frontcourt and one of the ACC's top players.  He's not a flashy defender like his predecessors Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins, but regardless he's going to draw the top assignments on both ends of the floor.  He'll have to fight double-teams on offense and take on everyone's best in the post on defense.  Even though he moved into the starting lineup last year, this is still an extra step of responsibility for him.  Worry all you like about that, but your dose of Xanax for that is that the rest of the ACC has to figure out what the hell to do with him.

#15 - Malcolm Brogdon - Sr. SG

Heart and soul of this team, sure - but every team has a heart and soul, or at least, most of the good ones.  (We could all name a few soulless teams.)  Malcolm Brogdon's a bit more than that.  With apologies to Joe Harris, whose journey from Chelan to ACC champion embodied Virginia's rise to the scene, Brogdon is the quintessential Tony Bennett recruit and player.  He doesn't just fit the mold, he is the mold.  Much of this was encapsulated in a Sports Illustrated article that went way, way in depth into what makes Brogdon tick.  His family collects advanced degrees like Halloween candy, and Brogdon himself is unselfish and almost fanatically dedicated to improvement - both on the court and off it.  Never has Tony Bennett betrayed more truth about his move from Wazzu to UVA than when he simply says, "I came to Virginia to be able to recruit players like Malcolm."

Brogdon has enough skills as a ballhandler, enough quicks, enough hops, but unlike most star guards in the sport, none of these are elite qualities.  Where he stands out is - like Gill - his strength.  Brogdon is big for a college guard and probably the most physically strong backcourt player in the nation.  This means he, too, draws a lot of fouls, and his near-elite free-throw shooting makes opponents pay for it.  He's more of an average three-point shooter than his free-throw shooting would suggest, but he's good enough you have to respect it, and he fearlessly shoots two-point jumpers as well - which is nominally a very inefficient shot that Brogdon turns into one of his best.  And on the other end, his on-ball defense is simply terrific - partly because of his strength and partly because he's taken all of Tony's coaching to heart.

Now that he's a senior, what he can do best to help his team is to demand the ball in crunch time and go full-speed angry bull at the rim.  Brogdon lacks much deception in his ballhandling, but he's better than he thinks he is at slashing and driving.  Because, quite simply, he can shoot through whatever you swing at him, and draw and-1s with ease.  Maddeningly, he didn't fully realize this even up through the last game of the year; if he had, the MSU game would've ended up a lot different.  When he figures out that it would take Bill Laimbeer to stop him from scoring in the lane, he'll routinely swing close games his way.

#21 - Isaiah Wilkins - So. PF

Marial Shayok is the player whose second-year improvement I'm most excited to see, but Isaiah Wilkins's improvement is the most critical to the success of the team.  Indisputable, that.  UVA has a tremendously experienced frontcourt just with Gill and Tobey alone, but it won't be a deep frontcourt without Wilkins.

In last year's season opener, Wilkins was all the rage - eight points, five boards, three assists, two blocks, and two steals.  Unfortunately, there was no repeat performance, though in large part because of the emergence of Darion Atkins.  Offensively, Wilkins struggled the rest of the way, and he was clearly a step slower than the veterans in the complicated defense.

Best-case, Wilkins can be the player he was against JMU.  He's got potential to be a terrific shot-blocker, and he's put on a few pounds which should help his defense as well as keep him from getting shoved out of the lane on offense.  He can shoot the occasional three - in fact he was two-for-three last year - so in an ideal world he's a matchup nightmare, able to stretch the floor and be comfortable on the outside and yet do all the dirty work required of a big man.  We've seen him do all of that, but only in flashes.

How consistently he's able to play like a true power forward will help to dictate usage elsewhere.  It's a problem if Wilkins isn't putting it together, because it means playing Mike Tobey in less-than-ideal matchups.  It's too much to expect for him (yet) to be the high-flying defender that Mitchell and Atkins were, because he's only a sophomore.  But take that JMU performance and turn it into 12-15 minutes a night of that, and UVA's frontcourt instantly becomes one of the most formidable in the conference.

#31 - Jarred Reuter - Fr. PF

Not much is expected of Reuter this year.  He'll be at the back of the bigs rotation.  It's not likely he'll redshirt - Tony is limited to eleven scholarship players because of the commitment to redshirt Mamadi Diakite and the requirement to redshirt Austin Nichols.  Reuter should get some minutes mainly to spell the starters, probably those ones in the first half about two-thirds of the way through where we usually see the back-of-the-rotation players.  Some games he might not play at all.

He won't be counted on to generate offense.  Reuter's game is to bang and crash down low.  Just rebound, occasionally put a hammer on someone trying to score, and set good screens.  As time goes on we'll see how his game develops, but for now, this team doesn't yet need him to play a featured role.  Some contributions here and there on defense and a few bruised opponents is all he'll need to make his mark.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

game preview: Miami

Date/Time: Saturday, November 7; 3:00


Record against the Canes: 6-6

Last meeting: UVA 30, Miami 13; 11/22/14, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA 27, GT 21; Miami 30, Duke 27

Line: Miami by 7

Last week I realized: I was only 6/7ths right on what this football season feels like.  Sunday through Friday, I'm pining for basketball season.  I want it now.  Saturdays....well, UVA botched yet another onside kick last week and the stream of four-letter words that involuntarily exited my mouth were all the proof I needed that on game day, it still matters.

UVA catches a second straight team coming off an emotional win, and one even more in the spotlight than the last one.  If you believe in football psychology, and yeah, it's not foolproof but there's something to it, then another favorable matchup awaits.  Interestingly, disaster though Mike London's tenure has been, the dude owns Miami, with a 4-1 record against the Canes.

-- UVA run offense vs. Miami run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 104 carries, 446 yards, 4.3 ypc, 2 TDs
Daniel Hamm: 46 carries, 211 yards, 4.6 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
138.88 yards/game, 3.94 yards/attempt
92nd of 128 (national); 9th of 14 (ACC)

Miami defense:
200.25 yards/game, 5.22 yards/attempt
113th of 128 (national); 14th of 14 (ACC)

Fun fact: Six of the top seven run defenses in the ACC are Atlantic teams.  The other Atlantic team is 8th.  In other words, the bottom six run defenses all reside in the Coastal.  UVA is 11th, and this week ends a three-game stretch against the only worse teams in the rankings.  It so happens Miami is the worst of the worst.

This isn't from a suspect game here and there.  The Canes are legitimately horrible at stopping the run.  The Clemson game - the last straw for Al Golden - was a total bloodbath.  Clemson ran the ball 63 times and piled up 416 yards.  Gaudy numbers like that abound.  FSU's Dalvin Cook by himself racked up 222 yards.  It doesn't matter whether Miami won the game or lost it; FBS opponents have moved the ball on the ground, and the good ones have done whatever they want.

Up front, Miami has some occasional playmakers in DEs Trent Harris and Al-Quadin Muhammad, and DT Ufomba Kamalu is a solid space-eater as well.  But the back end of the defense is porous and often out of position.  And worse yet for Miami was the loss of LB Raphael Kirby to a knee injury.  Kirby is the Canes' second-leading tackler even after missing the Duke game, and might still be after this weekend, too, unless Harris has a really big day.

With improved play from a more cohesive offensive line, this is a matchup that actually swings in the Hoos' favor.  Amazing, but true.  Taquan Mizzell has shown he can hit a hole pretty darn quickly when the hole is there, and Daniel Hamm has carried the ball enough now to show that the vision he displayed in his VMI debut last year wasn't just because VMI.  These are backs that can't do much without help, but a little space goes a long way with them.  They should have more than a little space against Miami.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Miami pass defense

Matt Johns: 151/249, 60.6%; 1,755 yards, 13 TDs, 13 INTs; 7.05 ypa, 126.6 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 46 rec., 499 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 37 rec., 513 yards, 4 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 12 rec., 207 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
223.6 yards/game, 6.9 yards/attempt
79th of 128 (national); 10th of 14 (ACC)

Miami defense:
210.1 yards/game, 6.5 yards/attempt
41st of 128 (national); 7th of 14 (ACC)

Miami lacks a true terrorizing playmaker defensive end - or tackle, for that matter - in the pass rush.  Al-Quadin Muhammad has 3 sacks, just a little more than what you'd expect just by sending any old body out there, and that leads the team.  What they do have is 12 guys with at least half a sack.  So while Matt Johns won't have to devote time always knowing where so-and-so is, he will have to keep his head on a swivel.

Where Miami is dangerous is the secondary.  Artie Burns has five picks, Rayshawn Jenkins has three, and Corn Elder, the lucky guy with the ball at the end of the Duke game, has broken up nine passes.  Johns is kind of gunslingery when given the chance, but his skills in that regard are inconsistent.  An interception or two in this game is almost guaranteed.

So I hate to say it, but the short passing game adored by Steve Fairchild is the way to go here.  Miami won't get any pressure at all if the drops are short and the ball is out quick, and since our passing game is sort of a quasi-run game anyway, you might as well attack the opponent where they're weakest.  For UVA to get the ball rolling and sustain some drives, Mizzell will have to get half a zillion touches, and the WRs targeted with great care.

-- Miami run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Joseph Yearby: 126 carries, 641 yards, 5.1 ypc, 5 TDs
Mark Walton: 74 carries, 284 yards, 3.8 ypc, 5 TDs

Miami offense:
123.75 yards/game, 3.79 yards/attempt
103rd of 128 (national); 11th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
163.13 yards/game, 4.55 yards/attempt
81st of 128 (national); 11th of 14 (ACC)

Miami's running back situation is pretty simple: Joseph Yearby is the unquestioned starter, Mark Walton gives him regular breaks.  Trayone Gray comes in at the end of blowouts, and that's about the extent of it.  Miami has tried one tricky thing all year - Stacy Coley on an end-around against VT.

Yearby is easily the better back, but, fact is, most of his best work was done early this year.  Two-thirds of his yards came in the first four games of the year; the latter four, with no decrease in workload, he's averaged less than 3.2 yards a carry.  Walton is sputtering, too; his workload has markedly decreased, and most of his game-high carries are for single-digit yardage.

Neither Yearby nor Walton is really a home-run hitter, in fact.  Miami's run offense the last four games is basically the same minimally-functional assault UVA has featured most of the year.  It's a pretty vanilla attack, too, after last week's yearly dose of head games.  Last week offered some hope; UVA has done a respectable job holding down the middle against opposing run games, because Micah Kiser has been very much up to the task.  Last week was all about the edges, and UVA decisively won the battle there.  In retrospect, Trent Corney was a how-did-I-not-realize-this star of the game.  GT doesn't block, they just try to chop you down - which is one thing Corney is perfectly built to defeat.  If Corney could translate that to fighting off regular blocks, Miami would be in for a long day.  As it is, they'll probably have some stretches of success and some 3rd-and-9s.

-- Miami pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Brad Kaaya: 140/229, 61.1%; 1,846 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs; 8.06 ypa, 141.5 rating

Top receivers:
Rashawn Scott: 37 rec., 502 yards, 4 TDs
Herb Waters: 27 rec., 473 yards, 1 TD
Stacy Coley: 26 rec., 354 yards, 2 TDs

Miami offense:
276.3 yards/game, 7.7 yards/attempt
45th of 128 (national); 5th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
248.8 yards/game, 8.1 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national); 13th of 14 (ACC)

It's still a mystery whether Brad Kaaya will return from a concussion he suffered against Clemson.  (Though, it's looking more likely that he will.)  His replacement, Malik Rosier, played horribly in relief in that game, but with a week of prep, Rosier was worlds more effective against Duke.  Still, Miami is better off with Kaaya under center.  Kaaya has only thrown two picks all year and was on pace to threaten the 4,000-yard mark for the season, an excellent build on his terrific debut season last year.

UVA will likely have a lot of trouble with Miami's deep stable of receivers.  Both quarterbacks know how to spread the ball around, and the Miami receivers are capable of stretching out the field and going for big chunk plays.  Miami leads the conference in long passing plays of >10 and >20 yards.  They don't go for the whole field at once off of a touchback, but they don't need to because they can get there in a handful of plays anyway, if your coverage is less than effective.

Combine that with excellent quarterback protection, and this is a very dangerous aspect of the game for UVA, which hasn't shown the ability to deal with too much at one time in the passing game.  Even GT burned them for 251 yards and two touchdowns, and that's a simple passing game to defend if you don't get sucked too close to the line of scrimmage.  Miami will make things very difficult, and probably pick up 300+ yards through the air.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 6.5
Pass offense: 4
Run defense: 4
Pass defense: 2

Average: 4.13

-- Outlook

Lot of competing trends here to make this one a difficult game to call.  On the one hand, Mike London has typically had Miami's number - the one team he's consistently beaten.  In fact, until last week, Miami was the only FBS team he'd beaten more than once.  (He's now 2-4 against Georgia Tech, with the other win coming in 2011.)  And Miami is coming off a crazy-ass, emotional win, just as with GT, and this is the least intimidating road environment in all of Power 5 football.

On the other hand, UVA carries a 13-game losing streak to Florida with them, and it's entirely possible Larry Scott has lit a fire under Miami's asses that lasts longer than one week.  Miami's run defense is horrible, but UVA isn't going to Clemson up the score on them regardless, and there's a semi-decent chance the Canes could pile up 400 passing yards.

So which is it - loss or win?  Because UVA football is obnoxious like this, I choose the option that causes the most chaos, consternation, and general uproar among the fanbase: a win.  Put this team at 4-5, and some people will wonder if this team can keep the comeback trail going all the way to a bowl.  Some will declare it's just the usual Charlie Brown and Lucy routine.  Some will chew their fingernails down to the knuckle in fear that too much winning will inspire the front office to extend the coach.  All are legitimate takes.  A loss is simpler - you just remind yourself that the next basketball game is sooner than the next football game.  A win makes a mess, and we still can't have nice things, so a mess it is.

Final score: UVA 28, Miami 21

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest

Duke @ North Carolina - 12:00 - We're used to it being for basketball supremacy, but now it has the Coastal Conference riding on it too.

Pittsburgh vs. Notre Dame - 12:00 - Possibly the best unranked team in the country, Pitt will likely shed that label one way or the other here.

Syracuse @ Louisville - 12:30 - This week we're chock full of games that would be better hoops contests.

NC State @ Boston College - 12:30 - The Pack are looking to get bowl eligible - and if they don't do it here, it's not a stretch to say they might never get there.

Florida State @ Clemson - 3:30 - I've been bitching about this for years and FINALLY they schedule this game for November.  This is Clemson's last legitimate regular season hurdle between them and an undefeated season.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

basketball season preview, part 1

You know you want it.  Here it is.  Tipoff is, as of typing this sentence, 8 days and 21 and a half hours from now.  UVa basketball is a legitimately elite team.  The media and coaches both ranked the Hoos #6 to start the season; one intrepid member of the media poll decided they should be #1.  KenPom starts them off 3rd.  Nobody finds this strange anymore.

UVA is staring down a familiar ACC - one in which Duke and UNC are again the primary threats to world domination and VT is hot garbage but this year will be improvement you guys - and one of the toughest out-of-conference schedules of anyone in the nation.  December kicks off with a trip to Columbus, Ohio, and later a three-game stretch against West Virginia, Villanova, and Cal.  Worthy opponents will also be found in Charleston for the usual preseason tournament, which hopefully culminates in a championship game against Oklahoma State.

The 30-second shot clock this year, down from 35, almost certainly means it'll be much harder for Tony Bennett's famous defense to ring up freak-show scores like 45-26 or 57-28, or hold opponents to eight points in a half.  But it could also mean some larger margins of victory; if you can't score in 35 seconds on this defense, a shorter time limit isn't likely to help.

We'll start off here with a three-part series on the players themselves, which is as per usual except usually it's a two-part series.  Three this year, which you shouldn't read anything into except the fact that it takes a really long time to type this stuff up.  Because his number comes first in the alphabet, we start with....

#0 - Devon Hall - rSo. PG

Life's not easy as the tenth player in Tony's 9.5-man rotation.  You have to have the mindset of a relief pitcher.  Nobody, absolutely nobody, comes out of high school thinking that way.  Devon Hall redshirted, then spent last year bouncing between long stretches on the bench and long stretches on the court.  He started the first game while London Perrantes served a suspension, then saw his minutes vaporize when ACC season rolled around, then jumped right back in when Justin Anderson was hurt near the end of the year, then played zero minutes in all postseason games.

Anderson is in the League now, but the backcourt minutes aren't much less logjammed.  Hall looks once again like the sixth player in the rotation for three spots' worth of minutes.  Much depends on his offseason improvements - more so than anyone else in the backcourt.  Hall wasn't a force on offense last year; he struggled from the free-throw line in limited opportunities, didn't force opponents to account for his outside shooting, and missed too many two-pointers as well.  The offense never ran through him; instead it occasionally ended up in his area.

Anderson averaged about 28 minutes a game, but it's not hard to envision that being taken up by Marial Shayok (maybe ten extra minutes), Darius Thompson (fifteen?) and Evan Nolte, who is after all a senior.  Hall wasn't a standout on defense last year, but he played it well enough to be inserted into the lineup with little hesitation.  He's going to have to show something on offense to nose his way onto the court.  It's a delicate balance between asserting yourself enough and too much, and Hall needs to find it early if he's going to stick in the rotation.  If he can do that, his size will be a real asset and help to make UVA a truly imposing presence with one of the biggest backcourts in the nation.  Otherwise, he'll spend another year picking up the scraps and making it difficult to tell what exactly he does well.

#4 - Marial Shayok - So. SG

College basketball teams have to reinvent themselves a little bit every year.  They lose some unique talents to transfer, graduation, or the draft; new faces arrive; old faces add new talents.  Case in point: Justin Anderson finding a three-point shot.  One of my favorite things about new basketball seasons is finding out how the new rotation meshes, how the chemistry equation sorts out, and most especially, unwrapping the new surprises.  With Tony Bennett the latter is better than ever, because amazing coaching means major offseason improvements.

All that in mind, here's the holdover player I'm most excited to see this year.  Marial Shayok is a big reason why the Devon Hall preview was so pessimistic.  Generally, the upperclassmen are what they are.  Shayok is, potentially, a lot of things.  Last year he came in billed as a very versatile player, and delivered 100% on that promise.  Lot of tools in his toolbox; he's a very skilled defender, and can score a bunch of different ways.

One thing I'd like to see most is either better mid-range shooting, or a lot less of it.  Shayok can hit the three and he's one of the team's best finishers at the rim.  His 62.5% percentage at the rim (according to Hoop-Math) is big-man-esque.  He can achieve a huge boost in efficiency by focusing on the shots with much higher reward potential, or he can level up even more in versatility by improving his mid-range game to, say, 30-35% instead of the ugly 23.5% he shot last year.

Shayok, obviously, isn't Justin Anderson's equal athletically - very few are.  But he's got a great feel for the game.  He's a Swiss Army knife of a basketball player, not easily pigeonholed into a particular position.  His many skills, though, are still raw and undeveloped.  Whichever of those skills he improved most over the offseason will not only help himself find well-deserved playing time, but more importantly, it'll determine what chemistry combinations work best in this year's experiment.

#10 - Mike Tobey - Sr. C

Everyone's favorite enigma, a senior at last and hopefully ready to come blasting out of his shell.  Sort of - because I'm one who maintains there isn't much of a shell, just a talented center developing at about the usual pace for a center.  Tobey has a lot of strong points that show up very loud and clear on a stat sheet - or at least the KenPom kind of sheet.

To start with, he was the third-most efficient player on last year's team, ahead of big names like Brogdon.  This had a lot to do with his very low turnover rate and quality free-throw shooting, two traits it's incredibly difficult to find in a big man.  He was also the team's best rebounder from the efficiency point of view and in fact one of the better ones in the country.

Tobey's detractors want him to "play with more fire," as his game doesn't come off very intense.  You might get a few more blocks that way (and a few more fouls) and he might get to the line a bit more, maybe a little better shooting percentage.  You wouldn't get much extra rebounding, though, because he already does that very well, and his defense wouldn't show it, because he can already neutralize most players his size and isn't quick enough to be a major stopping force against power forwards.

You can make a case, though, that Tobey is the best true center in the ACC.  Other players have a case, too - think Tonye Jekiri of Miami, Landry Nnoko of Clemson - but the thing is, Tobey's best games come against those specific players.  Tobey abuses teams who defend him with other centers - and quickly picks up fouls when he doesn't have other centers to defend against and has to go against power forwards instead.

So if there's anything I want to see out of him in his senior year, it's not "more fire."  He is what he is.  And he doesn't need fire to beat up on other centers on both ends of the court.  Rather, I'd like to see him be able to hang in there longer against players like Zach Auguste, who's not a true center but can bang around inside just enough and out-quick Tobey with the ball.  He's got to be able to contribute more against teams who go relatively small inside, because UVA can't simply answer with Darion Atkins anymore.

#11 - Evan Nolte - Sr. SF

Another enigma - which is sort of weird for a pair of seniors.  Nolte looked like he was on the outs halfway through last year, with only a few token minutes a game.  Then, like Hall, he appeared back in the rotation with a vengeance when Justin got hurt - and unlike Hall, stuck even when Anderson returned.

Before that Louisville game, he was 7-for-35 shooting three pointers.  Horrendous, and a glaring problem, because that's what he was in the game to do.  In the last one-third of the season he was 14-for-41 - much, much better, and there were two consecutive games there where he was 0-for-8, so outside that little blip, he shot 42%.  It lends credence to the idea that you can expect his shot to be much better this year.

Nolte also figured out how to be a very consistent defender, adopting an awkward-looking defensive stance that works like a damn charm.  He will never, ever get a steal out of his on-ball defense, but more power to you if you can recall anyone getting past him once he got down in that duck stance.  He also formed a bridge between frontcourt and backcourt, playing the four on occasion.  While Nolte at the four and Tobey at the five is a combination that will happen exactly never, putting Nolte at power forward is a great way to punish an opponent for going too big - particularly if he's hitting from outside.

I doubt there's much evolution left in Nolte's game.  His defense is fine.  He's not going to light up the stat sheet, but he's far, far from a liability.  He's not going to go with his back to the basket unless someone tries to guard him with a 6'2" shooting guard.  The only real variable here is the three-point shooting, which comes and goes for almost everyone.  If he's hitting, great.  Really great.  If he's not, he needs to keep bombing away until he is.  It would be hard to be worse than he was at the beginning of last year, so just a little regression to the mean is all he really needs.

Friday, October 30, 2015

game preview: Georgia Tech

Date/Time: Saturday, October 31; 3:00


Record against the Jackets: 17-19-1

Last meeting: GT 35, UVA 10; 11/1/14, Atlanta

Last weekend: UNC 26, UVA 13; GT 22, FSU 16

Line: GT by 6

Part of the reason I was bitching about following this football team, is that it's really stinkin' hard to come up with a narrative for anything.  This is the spot where I like to talk about What This Game Means, but what it means is the same thing every week anymore: either one more loss closer to the end of the season or a week-long reprieve.

This one means quite a bit to Georgia Tech - a team that was supposed to contend, now facing down the barrel of no-bowl-dom, but staving off execution by upsetting Florida State last week.  With their most loseable remaining game turned into a win, GT now cannot afford to completely reverse that equation, so while coming off an emotional big win is usually a good time to catch a team, that's less likely to be the case Saturday.

-- UVA run offense vs. GT run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 90 carries, 371 yards, 4.1 ypc, 2 TDs
Albert Reid: 37 carries, 163 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
125.43 yards/game, 3.66 yards/attempt
111th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

GT defense:
164.88 yards/game, 4.73 yards/attempt
94th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

Could it be that UVA's running game is on a genuine upward trend?  The ground game surpassed 200 yards against UNC for the first time this season, and Smoke Mizzell picked up 117 yards; his previous career best was 66.  Daniel Hamm added 70 - mostly on one carry, but that makes two very long pickups in three games for the run game, and it gets harder to ignore them the more they're produced.

UNC had a pretty forgiving defense, but so does Georgia Tech.  Four of their opponents - all good ones - have reached that 200-yard threshold.  Alcorn State had 166.  Truth is, very few running backs have had unproductive days.  Adam Gotsis is a legitimate playmaking DT, but like David Dean, he's usually double-teamed and can't get the help he needs.  GT is most vulnerable on the outside, where the DEs are undersized and there's no playmaking linebacker to clean up.  (There's also no real nose tackle to be found; the defensive tackles are all better suited to the three-tech, but someone has to hold down the fort at the nose, usually Jabari Hunt, and he's not really up to the task.)  The team tackle leader is MLB P.J. Davis with just 54, and the next-most is 36, owned by strong safety Jamal Golden.

No doubt this team is setting me up for disappointment again, but there's reason to be more optimistic about the run game right now than at any previous point this season - including the very beginning.  Continuity along the O-line is certainly helping.  I think Jay Whitmire is finally rounding back into form.  Maybe the best sign is that I went "aw shit" when Jackson Matteo briefly went down during the UNC game - instead of just rolling my eyes at once again having to shuffle the O-line.  You can move the ball on Georgia Tech - and if the past two games can be an indicator, UVA just might do it.

-- UVA pass offense vs. GT pass defense

Matt Johns: 134/221, 60.6%; 1,580 yards, 12 TDs, 12 INTs; 7.15 ypa, 127.7 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 41 rec., 466 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 33 rec., 458 yards, 3 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 10 rec., 187 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
230.6 yards/game, 7.0 yards/attempt
79th of 128, 11th of 14 (ACC)

GT defense:
194.8 yards/game, 6.8 yards/attempt
55th of 128, 9th of 14 (ACC)

On the flip side, the passing game has chosen this moment to hit a downslide.  While the running game hit 200 yards last week, Matt Johns missed that mark for the first time this year, and by a lot, too.  A lot of that's on him.  Not every INT was his fault last week - but the one he lofted ten feet over Canaan Severin's head sure was.  It goes without saying he needs to erase those turnovers.

Gotsis remains the primary threat in this area, as he's a solid up-the-middle pass rusher.  Otherwise, GT finds it tough to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and that's not something they do often.  DC Ted Roof prefers a zone scheme and has been known to throw six defensive backs out there more often than a lot of coordinators.  The top pass defender in the secondary is D.J. White, with two picks and five break-ups.

You often see it said about quarterbacks, "we just have to get some pressure on him."  This of course is a close cousin to "we need to not turn the ball over," but with Johns, he does seem like one of those quarterbacks whose performance suffers more than usual from being pressured too much.  And unfortunately the offensive line lets that happen more than it should.  But a bend-don't-break scheme is exactly the kind of thing Steve Fairchild game-plans against.  If the opposition wants to play zone and let you amass six-yard completions all day, Fairchild will greedily slop that up.  I could see that working out.

-- GT run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Justin Thomas: 107 carries, 400 yards, 3.7 ypc, 6 TDs
Patrick Skov: 81 carries, 331 yards, 4.1 ypc, 6 TDs
Marcus Marshall: 57 carries, 508 yards, 8.9 ypc, 4 TDs

GT offense:
283.38 yards/game, 5.60 yards/attempt
16th of 128, 2nd of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
165.86 yards/game, 4.57 yards/attempt
87th of 128, 9th of 14 (ACC)

No need to overdo this.  By now you know what GT does.  You also know how to stop it: rigidly disciplined assignment football and stepping on, over, or around players who cut-block you.  Disciplined assignment football left this team a long time ago and never bothered with a forwarding address.  You can't stop this run consistently with half the team getting so easily redirected.  UVA hasn't successfully stopped the GT attack for a long time, and this team looks especially susceptible.

-- GT pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Justin Thomas: 52/118, 44.1%; 915 yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs; 7.75 ypa, 127.0 rating

Top receivers:
Ricky Jeune: 15 rec., 319 yards, 3 TDs
Micheal Summers: 8 rec., 120 yards, 2 TDs
Mikell Lands-Davis: 7 rec., 169 yards, 1 TD

GT offense:
120.9 yards/game, 8.0 yards/attempt
38th of 128, 4th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
248.4 yards/game, 8.1 yards/attempt
109th of 128, 14th of 14 (ACC)

The Hoos will be without Tim Harris for this game, which is probably OK given Harris's propensity to give up the big play and GT's propensity to look for it.

For GT, Ricky Jeune is nicely filling the big-and-tall receiver role that they like to feature prominently in what little passing game they have.  Everything's pretty much as usual here too, except that Justin Thomas has been less accurate than most GT triple-option QBs, especially last year's version of Justin Thomas.  Defend the GT pass game by not getting suckered in by what looks like the 17th run in a row.  Also been difficult for our defenders.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4.5
Pass offense: 4
Run defense: 1.5
Pass defense: 3

Average: 3.25

-- Outlook

Can UVA stop the triple option?  No.  And that's basically what it boils down to.

I do expect an improved offensive performance, at least on the ground.  Or at least, for last week's success to continue.  But as with last week, the run game can be good but very unlikely enough to carry the team.  The run game almost certainly limited the UNC scoring opportunities in the very cliche way of controlling the clock and giving the defense rest etc. etc., but you can't hold that particular horde off forever.  Sooner or later you have to try and stop what you can't stop.  And GT is probably the best losing-record team in the country.  They're not as bad as their wins and losses show.  That'll out, too, and GT will be on the path to reviving their bowl hopes while UVA gets put in the position of having to win out to make it.

Final score: GT 35, UVA 17

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: none

North Carolina 26, Pittsburgh 19 - Thu. - First game among the three heavyweights of the Coastal.

Louisville @ Wake Forest - Fri. 7:00 - Wake's last game against an unranked team.

Syracuse @ Florida State - 12:00 - Always bet on a team at home that just lost a really tough one - especially if their opponent lost to UVA.

Virginia Tech @ Boston College - 12:30 - Excellent chance - believe it or not - for BC to pick up their first ACC win.

Clemson @ NC State - 3:30 - Next two games mean the season for Clemson.  It's playoffs or bust this year.

Miami @ Duke - 7:00 - The Canes were embarrassed last week and Duke struggled to get past VT; watch for Miami to pull off the upset in this one.  Also, three decades of football just went "WTF" at that characterization of a Miami win over Duke.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


What a drag this football team has become.  It's a drag to watch.  It's a drag to write about.  It's a drag knowing we lost last week, we lost this week, and we'll lose again next week.  And yes, I know that we didn't actually lose last week, but at 2-5, trudging our way through an unremarkable loss to yet another better-coached team, it sure has a way of feeling like that.

There are 128 teams in I-A football; 25 of them are currently out of legitimate bowl contention, which I define right now as being 2-5 or worse.**  Exactly one of those 25 is in the ACC.  That means more than 80% of the teams in the country remain interested in the proceedings.  And with 80 slots, most of those fans will take home some kind of prize.

This should be a terrific time of year.  These games only happen once a week - they should matter.  Well, they do for most people.  Most people are eagerly devouring details of Saturday's opponent, and when that day comes, well, it's one of only 12 all year so it's a big swing between winning and losing and your fortunes are either wonderfully uplifted or woefully downtrodden.  Until the next week when you get to do it all over again.

That hasn't been the case around here for four years.  Occasional smatterings of meaning have been tossed onto the canvas here and there like Jackson Pollock scooping from the bottom of the can, but in the end it's all come down to the same thing.  Lose, complain about coaching, repeat.  Saturday, I'll turn on the TV again, and I'll hope for a miracle, for some entertainment, for something good to happen, but certainly not expect it.  Nobody's hanging on every play wondering whether it's the difference between Good Times and Bad Times, because we already know which way we're headed.  We've already read the spoilers.

This is not interesting.  This is utterly, incomprehensibly, lame.  Football season has become a long slow walk to basketball season.  If ESPN were smart they'd have ponied up for the rights to UVA vs. Morgan State on November 13; a whole legion of UVA fans are going to be so desperate for a rescue from the grind of watching this football team that they'll paste themselves to the screen for hoops.

The whole rest of the ACC is still shooting for something.  Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver, and Mike London have ensured that's not the case in Charlottesville.

**For the sake of expediency.  I'm sure there are some three-win teams whose fans are already telling the in-laws, yes, we can visit for Christmas, we're not taking that trip to Florida after all.

-- I didn't hate the offensive gameplan this week.  The run game worked - really, honest-to-God, properly worked.  Give the O-line a pat on the back.  Taquan Mizzell has never had a 100-yard game in college before; his next-best performance is barely half his new career high.

And I tipped my hat at those TE drag routes with the QB rollout.  You don't want to get too reliant on plays where you have to eat it if the one option doesn't pan out, but regardless.  (Tangent: that needs to be a goal-line play.  Rollouts away from the blocking, with a following receiver like that, are close to foolproof inside the 2.  Receiver open, throw it.  Receiver covered, sprint for the pylon and dive.  Even if your QB is fast and agile like Jared Lorenzen, he's still two yards tall.)

So yeah - whatever reason we lost the game, and it might've been the four interceptions, just guessing here - it mostly wasn't Steve Fairchild's fault.  That said, I still hate that his go-to third-and-long play is a screen pass.  That works never.

-- I also applaud the reasoning behind the attempted trick of waving off the "extra" player, because I'm just going to assume the coaches are self-aware of UVA's reputation for screwing up substitutions and figured if anyone could pull off a trick like that it would be UVA.  Then again, if anyone could forget that the 12-men rule takes effect when you break the huddle and line up, rather than at the snap, it would also be UVA.  The refs were nice and fooled, even if the UNC defenders can count to 11.

-- Nicholas Conte has a 46-yard punting average?  I did not realize that.  At least one of our players is earning an A+ for on-field play.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

game preview: North Carolina

Date/Time: Saturday, October 24; 3:30


Record against the Heels: 54-61-4

Last meeting: UNC 28, UVA 27; 10/25/14, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA 44, SU 38; UNC 50, WF 14

Line: UNC by 17.5

One of college sports' greatest advantage over the pros is the total lack of tangible benefit to losing.  (No, the potential firing of a fireable coach doesn't count; it's all hypothetical ether til that day actually arrives.)  In that sense, despite the complete debauchery that is the recruiting process (especially at oh say Louisville) and the golden handshakes we all pretend don't exist, and all the tattoo scandals and fake degrees and free shoes and everything, despite all that, there's still at least one absolutely pure aspect to the college level of football: it ain't for nuthin' but braggin' rights.  Nobody's lamenting the loss of draft pick status when you win, nobody's encouraging the team to lose, there's no such thing as tanking.  That's why the Syracuse game was great stuff.  Come what may in the end, there's at least one school in the ACC who can't lord it over us for a year.

Which brings us to the South's Oldest Rivalry - and the five game losing streak in this particular game that we currently wear.  Prior to that, UVA had won four straight, seven of eight, and ten of twelve, and in fact was very close to completely leveling the all-time series.  Plus we had that fun little streak where we hadn't lost to them at home since 1981.  Nice.  Bragging rights.

The Hoos are very unlikely to go bowling this year and very unlikely to save their coach's job, but losing accomplishes nothing and is always worse than winning - particularly in a rivalry with a name.  UNC is on a completely opposite trajectory from UVA, proving there is no such thing as sports-god justice given the two schools' vastly differing attitudes on classroom work, so bragging rights here are likely to continue to slip further away, but at least a win would be an unadulterated joy.

-- UVA run offense vs. UNC run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 66 carries, 254 yards, 3.8 ypc, 2 TDs
Albert Reid: 37 carries, 163 yards, 4.4 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
112.17 yards/game, 3.35 yards/attempt
119th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
213.83 yards/game, 4.52 yards/attempt
82nd of 128 (national), 11th of 14 (ACC)

It's amazing what a functional running game can do.  Matt Johns played well against Syracuse, but I don't think the passing game was all it could've been given the shitshow that is Syracuse's pass defense.  With our usual running game, that would've been another loss.  Instead the ball actually moved on the ground.  UVA managed about four-and-a-quarter yards per carry without sacks, which is basically mediocre.  I'll take it, after what we've seen so far.  It moved them off the bottom of the conference, at least.

Of course, that's half because UNC shut down Wake Forest last week.  Kind of.  This was in large part because 1) UNC kept the pressure on Wake's non-scrambly quarterback, John Wolford, and 2) Wake's punter felt it necessary to receive a snap with his knee on the ground.  Slick.  Anyway, UNC.  Normally, midseason analyses of opposing run defenses begin with "have they played Georgia Tech yet?" and if they have, take any poor standing in the rankings with a grain of salt, and the earlier the game, the bigger the grain.

But UNC actually stopped GT pretty effectively.  Then again, Delaware, a team even more run-wacky than GT, racked up almost 300 yards.  Illinois, outside the top 100 in rushing effectiveness, also had their way.  Even North Carolina A&T had some success on the ground.

With a little consistency on the O-line, something that's been entirely lacking this year, the Hoos might actually find some room to run. (?)  UNC has an inexperienced defensive line and has found it tough to get any disruption from the front.  Linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad do pretty good work, but they also have to do most of it.  UVA will never run roughshod over anyone, but I'm comfortable saying this matchup won't be a disaster, either.

-- UVA pass offense vs. UNC pass defense

Matt Johns: 117/191, 61.3%; 1,432 yards, 11 TDs, 8 INTs; 7.5 ypa, 134.9 rating

Top receivers:
Taquan Mizzell: 35 rec., 409 yards, 3 TDs
Canaan Severin: 30 rec., 418 yards, 3 TDs
Olamide Zacchaeus: 9 rec., 48 yards, 0 TDs

UVA offense:
244.3 yards/game, 7.3 yards/attempt
62nd of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UNC defense:
135.5 yards/game, 5.5 yards/attempt
10th of 128 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

You hear a lot about UNC's improved defense, and this is what they mean.  UNC was a wreck last year in pass defense, allowing 8.5 yards per attempt.  They've slashed three yards off of that, which is impressive.  Opposing quarterbacks are barely above 50/50 in completing their passes.

The linebackers are solid in pass coverage, and they pair up with a very solid secondary.  Carolina does a good job of limiting the YAC because their back seven or eight are sure tacklers.  Gene Chizik has taught them how to keep plays in front of them; UNC is tied for first in the country for fewest allowed pass plays above 20 yards with just 10.  That's a skewed stat when you've got two run-heavy teams on the schedule, but those teams also tend to produce big pass plays when they do bother trying.

The plus side is, Matt Johns should hopefully stay clean.  Junior Gnonkonde leads UNC's pass rush with two sacks - which is half the team total.  They both came against Wake Forest.  Even with a constantly shifting lineup, UVA has been respectable in pass protection, and Johns is good about not rooting himself to one spot.

Still, time to throw is one thing, but you have to find someone, and there's extra pressure on the playmakers this week - Mizzell and Severin, principally - to be the ones to create extra space and move the ball.  Johns is still being leashed to the pass-game-as-run-proxy strategy a little too much for my liking, and I expect guys like safety Donnie Miles to be in too many places at once, being as the pass game isn't big on subtle mental games.  I don't expect Johns to have a great day; the average per attempt could be as low as in the 4s.

-- UNC run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Elijah Hood: 79 carries, 545 yards, 6.9 ypc, 6 TDs
Marquise Williams: 56 carries, 405 yards, 7.2 ypc, 5 TDs

UNC offense:
218.5 yards/game, 6.15 yards/attempt
5th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
160.83 yards/game, 4.47 yards/attempt
79th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Here's where it gets scary.  OK, let's be honest, here's why UVA is going to lose this game.  The Hoos could move the ball.  The run game has a chance to be respectable and the quarterback play is still solid.  That seems good until you see how an offense really operates.  There's a lot of experience everywhere on this side of the ball and Larry Fedora is a quality offensive mind.

Elijah Hood is in his sophomore season and now living up to the hype.  He's just shy of seven yards a carry, and capable of running people right over.  He gets a lot of running room from an incredibly experienced interior line; right guard Landon Turner in particular is a pro prospect, and all five starting linemen were also starters last year.  On negative plays, which are few and far between, Hood has only lost six yards all year.  By comparison, Taquan Mizzell lost seven on negative plays just against Syracuse.

Then you add Marquise Williams's legs, which not only have plays run specifically for them but can also carry him right out of trouble.  The UVA defensive line really stinks at maintaining containment in the pocket and this tendency is going to burn them like eight or ten times.  Not even a little bit optimistic about this.

-- UNC pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Marquise Williams: 84/131, 64.1%; 1,127 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs; 8.6 ypa, 149.9 rating

Top receivers:
Quinshad Davis: 24 rec., 288 yards, 1 TD
Ryan Switzer: 19 rec., 265 yards, 2 TDs
Bug Howard: 17 rec., 281 yards, 2 TDs

UNC offense:
263.7 yards/game, 9.4 yards/attempt
12th of 128 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
252.2 yards/game, 8.0 yards/attempt
109th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

And this is worse.  Williams has been awfully efficient, and not only that, but he spreads the ball around exceptionally well.  Four different receivers - the players above plus Mack Hollins - have a minimum of 265 yards.  Three of them are 6'4" or taller (Switzer is the only exception.)

There is no need to overanalyze this.  UVA's secondary has been horrendous this year at reading routes and communication and important stuff like making sure all the receivers are covered and not triple-covering some decoy route.  UNC has tall, fast receivers, running a system basically guaranteed to confound a very confundable secondary, and a quarterback that, should you succeed in getting pressure on him, will destroy you for losing contain, which this D-line does all the time.  UVA's best chance may be to run a 2-3-6 defense, put two defensive ends on one side, at least try to force Williams to operate in just half the field, and flood the secondary with defenders.

-- Favorability ratings

Run offense: 4
Pass offense: 3
Run defense: 1
Pass defense: 0

I considered a negative number for the pass defense.

Average: 1.5

That's not really the average, but we're tacking on a half-point penalty for special teams, because Fedora loves to mess with London, who has yet to figure out how to defend a fake punt.

-- Outlook

If only the ability to sometimes make chicken salad out of the run game could sustain a game.  At best I think UVA can use it to artificially pump up the time of possession and limit UNC's chances with the ball.  They have such an explosive offense it might not matter, and even when the Hoos do get a stop, who knows what might happen.  A popular sentiment on the boards this week, what with Syracuse running yet another successful fake punt on UVA's special teams, is that UNC will do the same thing when they get a chance.  That seems likely, unless Fedora is just holding things close to the vest.

Which he might do, considering the strong likelihood that his offense will make mincemeat out of this defense.  UVA under London has shown no propensity whatsoever to stopping a Fedora offense, or Marquise Williams in particular.  Except for most of the second half last year until they ruined it by giving up the game winning drive, allowing recovery of an onside kick, and then handing UNC a first down on 4th-and-1 by putting 12 men on the field.  Truly a Mike London Special.  This one's not ending well, either.

Final score: UNC 45, UVA 13

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: none

Clemson @ Miami - 12:00 - This one might put a few more Fire Golden planes in the sky.

NC State @ Wake Forest - 12:00 - The Pack losing this one would make a mockery of the scheduling-for-success concept after their hideous OOC slate.

Pittsburgh @ Syracuse - 12:00 - Pitt can be the third ACC team to earn bowl eligibility; quite a first season for Pat Narduzzi.

Boston College @ Louisville - 12:30 - Battle of the Birdies.

Duke @ Virginia Tech - 3:30 - Michael Brewer returns to QB for the Hokies, but it's their once-vaunted defense that's bringing them down this year.

Florida State @ Georgia Tech - 7:00 - Raise your hand if you thought GT would start the ACC season 0-5.  Yup, that's nobody.

Friday, October 16, 2015

game preview: Syracuse

Date/Time: Saturday, October 17; 3:30


Line: UVA by 7

Record against the Orange: 2-2

Last meeting: UVA 27, Cuse 24; 9/17/05, Syracuse

Last weekend: Pitt 26, UVA 19; USF 45, Cuse 24

Ten years ago was the last time we played Syracuse - not even a thought of them ever being in the ACC - and I guess that's appropriate because this week (Thursday, in fact) was also the ten-year anniversary of what ESPN called "the wildest day in college football this century."  You'd almost never be off base in accusing ESPN of hyperbole, but in this case you might just have to admit they're right.

This is all apropos of nothing, of course, except that UVA got to take part in it so that was pretty sweet.  But that was then, when we were good.  This is now, when......(sigh).  UVA is actually favored in this one, which is certainly the last time they'll be favored in any game this season.  Which means that if you're some kind of whackjob who thinks we could get to watch a bowl game this year, this one is a must-must-must win.

-- UVA run offense vs. Cuse run defense

Top backs:
Taquan Mizzell: 53 carries, 196 yards, 3.7 ypc, 0 TDs
Albert Reid: 31 carries, 152 yards, 4.9 ypc, 1 TD

UVA offense:
102.8 yards/game, 3.27 yards/attempt
121st of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Cuse defense:
137.8 yards/game, 3.81 yards/attempt
50th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

Syracuse's defense is basically crap.  The pass defense is mega-crap and the run defense is just your basic average crap, but it's an overall crapshow.  Against even crappier offenses, though, Cuse has managed at least to keep teams from running the ball.

The Orange started the season 3-0 in large part because they kept lousy opponents from moving the ball on the ground.  Rhode Island netted four yards.  But Rhode Island is a 1-5 I-AA team.  Wake and CMU had slightly better luck - slightly.  Those teams are 119th and 126th in rushing offense this year, so stopping them isn't a major accomplishment.  On the other hand, Cuse got steamrolled by LSU and USF, allowing 268 and 281 yards on the ground, respectively.

All well and good, but you know as well as I do where UVA stands.  The Hoos would be worse than CMU if not for Reid's 71-yarder against Pitt.  That run added almost half a yard to the team's season average.  Cuse's defenders don't look that scary on the stat sheet.  The front seven doesn't have any big-time run stuffers.  Safety Antwan Cordy is the only player with any significant number of run-game TFLs.  But Syracuse can stop crappy run offenses, and UVA's is just about as crappy as it gets.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Cuse pass defense

Matt Johns: 93/154, 60.4%; 1,198 yards, 9 TDs, 7 INTs; 7.8 ypa, 135.9 rating

Top receivers:
Canaan Severin: 26 rec., 348 yards, 2 TDs
Taquan Mizzell: 25 rec., 340 yards, 3 TDs
T.J. Thorpe: 6 rec., 145 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
246.4 yards/game, 7.6 yards/attempt
53rd of 128 (national), 7th of 14 (ACC)

Cuse defense:
255.8 yards/game, 8.3 yards/attempt
114th of 128 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

On the other hand, this has possibilities.  Anyone who's bothered to try passing the ball on Cuse has found success.  (Except Rhode Island, which doesn't count.)  Good, bad, or indifferent, the four I-A teams the Orange has faced have all torched them through the air.  Wake rolled up 373 yards; Central followed that with 430.

It's not the pass rush.  Defensive ends Ron Thompson and Luke Arciniega have five and four sacks, respectively.  Bad news for UVA, because Michael Mooney is sidelined and Jack English is going to have to deal with Thompson all day long.  Mooney isn't all that great of shakes and is probably out of place at LT, but English is probably gonna be toast on a stick.

Still, the Syracuse secondary is just bad.  Cordy is a run defender, period.  The cornerbacks can barely cover; opposing wide receivers are constantly having big days and spitting out huge gains.  Even when the line gets pressure, QBs are completing 56.7% of their passes, not far off the 64.9% they give up overall.

I'm always saying that if UVA is ever going to be successful, Matt Johns has to do it.  Here's his chance.  As long as he's not getting blindsided, he should be able to have a big game.  With the state of the run game, there's basically no excuse for not throwing the ball 50 times.

-- Cuse run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
Jordan Fredericks: 42 carries, 236 yards, 5.6 ypc, 2 TDs
Eric Dungey: 41 carries, 137 yards, 3.3 ypc, 2 TDs

Cuse offense:
165.2 yards/game, 4.35 yards/attempt
64th of 128 (national), 8th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
156.2 yards/game, 4.51 yards/attempt
84th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

The Syracuse running game is very multifaceted, so the Hoo defenders will get a lot of practice at staying on their toes.  They don't do the full Paul Johnson, but there's a healthy dose of triple-option game involved.  Rather than run it from under center, they'll go from the shotgun, so it's more like the Rich Rodriguez read-option combined with the old-fashioned Nebraska option pitch if the QB keeps on the first handoff.

But that's a play in the playbook rather than the whole run offense.  An often-used play, but a play nonetheless.  The Orange are also known to line up in the pistol, for example.  Or just hand the ball off regular.  They do a bunch of different stuff.

It doesn't work all the time.  In non-URI games, the Cuse is averaging about 3.9 yards a carry; not pitiful like some run games I know, but not too amazing.  Jordan Fredericks and George Morris split most of the time at running back and they've both been inconsistent this year.  Fredericks is a freshman and can be tough to bring down when he has some room, but almost all of his yards were against URI and CMU.  Morris, on the other hand, ran for a whopping -1 yards against Central and 7 yards on 5 carries against USF, but had a productive if lightly-used day against LSU.  The most consistent producer is actually the quarterback, Dungey, whose non-sack running stats are pretty OK.

It sets up to be a tricky day for UVA's defense, which already has been publicly scaled back on the assignment complexity.  Defending the option is all about complex assignments, hard enough when you know it's coming.  From a personnel standpoint, Syracuse doesn't scare, and they're not going to run completely amok on the defense, holey though it's been.  It's just a question of whether these still-raw linebackers and frankly rather undisciplined defensive ends can execute against the surprises.

-- Cuse pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Eric Dungey: 42/70, 60.0%; 660 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT; 9.4 ypa, 169.3 rating

Top receivers:
Steve Ishmael: 14 rec., 218 yards, 2 TDs
Ben Lewis: 10 rec., 89 yards, 1 TD
Brisly Estime: 8 rec., 197 yards, 2 TDs

Cuse offense:
176.4 yards/game, 7.2 yards/attempt
65th of 128 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
272.6 yards/game, 8.2 yards/attempt
111th of 128 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

For the second year in a row, Syracuse's quarterback Terrel Hunt went down with an early season-ending injury, this time an Achilles.  Tough news for him; for Syracuse, it helped them find their QB of both the present and future in Eric Dungey.  Dungey's a freshman, so just put him under pressure, you think, and maybe you're right but he's been basically a revelation for Cuse all the same.  He was injured and missed the LSU game; had he played, it might've meant an upset because third-stringer Zack Mahoney wasn't real good.

Dungey has some very respectable weapons around him.  Slot receiver Brisly Estime is a YAC machine and has an 89-yard touchdown this year, that against Wake Forest.  Steve Ishmael had a very good season as a freshman last year and is on his way to a better one yet.  The passing game focuses on them and H-backs Ben Lewis and Ervin Phillips, plus tight end Josh Parris.  Lewis and Parris are the center of the short passing game (there's barely any usage of the running backs) and Phillips can make some stretch plays out of the backfield.

As UVA's incredibly disappointing pass defense has yet to show it can stop anyone consistently, the best defense here is Syracuse's run game.  They lean heavily toward the ground attack, with less than 40% of their plays being pass attempts.  That's good for UVA; Dungey hasn't turned the ball over but once, so heavy use of the pass game would make things that much harder.

-- Favorability ratings

UVA run offense: 2.5
UVA pass offense: 7.5
UVA run defense: 4
UVA pass defense: 2.5

Average: 4.13

-- Outlook

Both these teams need this one badly, because both these teams are facing the worst team left on their schedule.  Syracuse's bowl aspirations would be a lot easier if they can win this one; UVA's, too, which is to say that a sliver of hope exists with a win and zero with a loss.

I'm about to do something crazy here and I don't know why; probably, it's because I think Syracuse's pass defense is so bad it overshadows everything else.  And because the game is at home.  Syracuse fans think the short-pass defense is of particular badness, which probably has Steve Fairchild rubbing his hands with glee.  If that's really true, Taquan Mizzell could have a monster day.  I think Canaan Severin will have a good one.

And I think we might actually be in better shape if we're losing after three quarters.  You'd like to see Syracuse shut down their pass game and UVA open up theirs, and the best way to get the coaches into that mode is to be losing.  So let's just say that's what happens, and Mike London gets another chance to praise his team's resilience and stick-to-it-iveness.

If we lose this one I'm never again predicting another Mike London team to win so much as a game of Candy Land.

Final score: UVA 37, Cuse 34

-- Rest of the ACC

Byes: Duke, NC State

Louisville @ Florida State - 12:00 - I'd be willing to call this a dangerous trap sort of game for FSU if it wasn't in Tallahassee.

Pittsburgh @ Georgia Tech - 12:30 - With FSU coming to town next week, GT is at risk of carrying a six-game losing streak into the UVA game.

Virginia Tech @ Miami - 3:30 - Battle to shake out some pecking order in the middle of the Coastal.

Boston College @ Clemson - 7:00 - BC has a great defense and nothing to show for it because the offense might actually be worse than UVA's.

Wake Forest @ North Carolina - 7:00 - Wake Forest is weirdly good sometimes and awful some others, and probably not enough of the former to win this one.